We are our culture and tradition; if there is no culture or tradition we are no one. (Tamerian Kuzgov)
I’m not a scholar. I’m not religious. I have no senior position or status. I grew in a relatively poor working class district of the north of England – some would call it a slum. For one, some or all of these reasons some of you will dismiss what I have to say. Some of you will deride what I have to say. Some of you will simply stop reading because of anticipation that what you have read is a precursor to ideas, notions, possibilities or truths to which, whether through choice or conditioning, your minds are already closed.
It is common today for the perceived value or reliability of opinion and comment to be skewed in favour of the current job title, occupation and/or position status of the person making it. These judgments can be extremely superficial and flawed. Often, the life background, influences, other experience, even within the same field, are ignored or devalued simply because their relevance is missed or unappreciated by those making judgment.
Strangely, for so many, the very factor of a job title evidently comprises sufficient evidence of credibility that they will trust that person’s advice, comment or action over that of someone without such a title. They will rarely consider what that person without a title may know about the issue; what experience, skills, qualifications, or knowledge that person may have of the area. Instead, they will trust the person with the title even though that person may be a novice; unsuited to their role; rigidly out-of-date, even incompetent. If this is the case within our own society, how much more likely is the chance of risk in an expatriate situation?
A young mother is taken ill in an impoverished rural village in one of the poorer nations of the majority world. Who is likely to understand the implications for that young mother’s sickness – a doctor from the West or a local grandmother and her peers or a local doctor without Western qualifications?
The expatriate doctor may be wholly committed to his or her work and may have skills, knowledge, and access to drugs that can affect a change for this person. What is questionable is their cultural, religious and social understanding of the local environment. Local traits and mores may influence or even dictate what are acceptable treatment practices for that patient. The use of drugs may be problematic if it creates other issues in terms of cost or access or reliance on costly long-term medication. The availability of continuing diagnosis and treatment based upon a Western, scientific medical approach may not be practicable. These and other implications may or may not be appreciated by a visitor to the community.
The local grandmother and her peers, on the other hand, may have no official qualifications or training. They may lack the refined understanding of biological and physiological factors, which a Western graduate may possess. Even the local doctor may lack skills and techniques that are common to the visiting practitioner. Surely then, wouldn’t the Western visitor be most useful?
They will, however, have something very special and relevant to illness and recovery. They will have direct identification with and understanding of the patient. They will be versed in local lore and environmental and dietary conditions. They will have experiences of life in those conditions and a complex body of knowledge that they have gained both from their own lives and from that which has been passed on to them by their forebears. The importance and significance of this should not be underestimated.
I don’t mean to suggest that advanced knowledge and skills and the well-motivated, selfless and skilled intervention of non-indigenous doctors, teachers and other workers should not happen or is not to be valued. Of course it is and those who provide it, probably for the most part do so at a significant emotional, social and financial cost to themselves. I admire that we have people of all nations who are willing to contribute to the welfare of others, often placing themselves at considerable risk and having to work in conditions well at odds with their task. These people are to be respected and without them the poorer individuals and communities in our world would undoubtedly have to endure even more suffering than they do already.
My concern is with what appears to be a common belief, that “development” means doing what the so-called advanced nations do, doing it in the way that they do it and doing it because it is somehow “better” that way. I would challenge that notion, at least when it is taken without qualification.
Culture is important. It is not good enough to assume that there is one way of obtaining democracy, freedom, well-being or quality of life. One size does not necessarily fit all. In fact, it is quite unlikely that it does so. The standard against which the developed world assesses progress is predominantly measured in $$ terms. The first thing to be reported when something new happens or when a disaster or tragedy strikes is the $$ cost of that event. Even immediate human consequences are often glossed over and the more complex or far-reaching implications for human beings are rarely reported or discussed at all.
The developed nations will reasonably readily put their hands in their pockets to provide funds and immediate relief aid for natural disasters or the victims of armed conflict. Unfortunately, the developed world does little to actually tackle the reasons why peoples cannot themselves cope with what nature throws at them, let alone what other human beings do.
For all the good motivation and generosity of the developed world, there is an arrogance to its assistance. It is always conditional, even if those conditions are implicit rather than explicit. A significant an insidious aspect of those conditions is the expectation that cultures will change to take on what the developed world expects. There is little respect shown by the developed world for those that they help with money.
Yet culture is the very heart of a people. It comprises the traditions, beliefs, law and wisdom of generations. It is an inherent component of the language, of the art, of games of folklore and all manner of the niceties of social interaction and engagement of a people. One cannot ignore this without tearing the heart out of a people. To attempt to do so is not only ignorant and inconsiderate but it will rarely succeed. Peoples and their cultures are interdependent. They may be separated on the surface but underneath the links will remain, only to surface, more often than not, in turmoil and conflict.
If that is “development” then I am mystified. Yes, the “developed” world has many positive attribute to share with the majority world. However, “share” is the operative concept. There has to be an exchange – a recognition that the developed world can also learn much from the majority world. There has to be a mutual respect. Ignoring or treading upon a people’s inherent values, traits, mores and beliefs is not a way forward. It is a formula for unrest, suspicion, distrust and conflict.
The developed world is similar to the child with Asperger’s syndrome: it may be exceedingly clever and intellectually advanced in some respects and, at the same time, be hopelessly ignorant of social and behavioural etiquette, custom and expectation. I think that the developed world needs to consider that.
The rapprochement of peoples is only possible when differences of culture and outlook are respected and appreciated rather than feared and condemned, when the common bond of human dignity is recognised as the essential bond for a peaceful world. (J. William Fulbright)